A prolific diarist and artist, Elizabeth Simcoe provides a portrait of 18th century Toronto.
“Everybody is sick of York. But no matter, the Lady likes the place and therefore everyone else must.” – Hannah Jarvis
The lady to whom Mrs. Jarvis, the wife of William Jarvis, was referring was Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, the eponym of the annual Ontario holiday that takes place the first weekend of August. Mrs. Simcoe’s entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography describes her as a gentlewoman, an author, and an artist. However, had Elizabeth not arrived in Toronto in 1793 with her husband, her writing and art may not have been more than a passing interest to anyone other than her descendants.
Born in Whitchurch, England, Elizabeth arrived into a world filled with bittersweet anticipation. Elizabeth’s father, Thomas, a Lieutenant-Colonel (and aide-de-camp to General Wolfe at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham), died during her mother’s pregnancy. Her mother died in childbirth. Her grandparents baptized her, on the same day as her mother’s funeral, with the melancholy middle name “Posthuma.” She was raised by a village, as aunts and grandparents cared for her mutually, although she eventually became the ward of Margaret Spinkes, her mother’s younger sister. A few years thereafter, Margaret married Admiral Samuel Graves, a relationship that would set the course for Elizabeth’s life.
Her childhood was spent at four different homes: In addition to Whitchurch, where she was born, the Gwillim family owned a home at Aldwincle, and Admiral Graves owned Hembury Fort House in Devonshire and a residence in central London. She spent her days taking in the outdoors, on foot or on horse, and became educated about the literary and visual arts, and watercolours in particular. Well taken care of, Elizabeth’s intellectual pursuits were mainly for her own amusement. She had a close relationship with Mary Ann Burges, who later became a well known author.
Admiral Graves had a close relationship with his godson, John Graves Simcoe, whose own parents had died before he reached adulthood. Injured at the Siege of Yorktown, Simcoe returned to England and recovered from his injuries at the Graves’s residence in Devonshire. There, he was introduced to the Gwillim family, including 19-year-old Elizabeth; he was a decade her senior. They married the following year, with a blessing from her aunt and uncle.
Admiral Graves thought it a perfect match: his godson’s character would challenge a strong-minded Elizabeth, while her inheritance would create financial means for John Graves Simcoe, who had political ambitions, but little in the way of resources to finance an election.
The newlyweds began their life together in Exeter and soon purchased 5,000 acres in Dunkeswell, a small village in East Devon (its population today is 1,361). The estate was known as Wolford and they spent the next several months rebuilding the site, which had previously held a monastery, the ruins of which had become a quarry for stone. The manor slowly became habitable for both Elizabeth and John, and soon for their children.
By the summer of 1783, Elizabeth knew that she was pregnant. While she expected that John would be delighted by the news, she also knew that her husband and her family would treat it with cautious optimism, given the fatal impact of her mother’s pregnancy.
Around this time, John Simcoe sought a manager to help run his estate and deal with the many tenants. He soon hired John Scadding, who would later travel with the Simcoes to Upper Canada and would give Toronto one of its favourite pioneer sons, historian Henry Scadding.
According to Elizabeth’s aunt, who assisted with the delivery, Elizabeth’s experience was a fairly easy one for a first birth. This boded well, the new mother decided, for other young Simcoes. Elizabeth had five daughters in six years. Shortly after the fifth, Sophia, was born in 1789, John Simcoe was elected Member of Parliament for St. Mawes (Cornwall), supporting the government of William Pitt the Younger. However, he really aspired to a public appointment and did not seem particularly interested in serving his constituents.
The Constitutional Act of 1791 divided Canada into the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, and established separate governments for each. Under King George III, Simcoe was appointed the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Elizabeth was delighted with his success and unwaveringly supported him until they discussed the reality of their future. She had just given birth to their first son, Francis. The post called for Colonel Simcoe to spend five years on the other side of the Atlantic in a province that was more wilderness than gentility. John assumed that Elizabeth would be by his side throughout, and Elizabeth assumed that the children would follow, until the colonel explained the conditions; that few had more than a one-roomed cabin for shelter, that there were no proper roads of which to speak, and that formal education was extremely limited. While leaving the children behind deeply concerned Elizabeth, she also longed for adventure and to see Quebec, a place that her father had known. In the end, she accompanied her colonel.
That September, John, Elizabeth, Sophia, and infant Francis sailed from Weymouth, arriving at Quebec some six weeks later. The winter of 1792 was particularly difficult, so they passed the time in Lower Canada before making the journey to the interior that spring. The subsequent four years were a whirlwind for Elizabeth. She spent a year without her husband at Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), where she gave birth to a daughter. The following May, she wrote in her diary that Colonel Simcoe had “returned from Toronto and speaks in praise of the harbour and fine spot near it covered [with] large Oak which he intends to fix upon it as a site for a Town.”
The family moved across the lake that summer, bringing with them a favourite cat, with grey and white spots, which had been a gift on their arrival. Their infant daughter, Katherine, died of malaria or a similar disease at around 15 months and was the first recorded burial at the Garrison Burying Ground (now within Victoria Memorial Square). Despite being an avid diarist, Elizabeth never mentions Katherine in her journals.
A few weeks after their arrival, a proclamation was issued renaming the town “York” in honour of the Duke who had recently saved Holland from a French invasion. (The name Toronto, of course, would be restored in 1834.)
Initially the family slept in a canvas house, one of several tents that, allegedly, the Lieutenant Governor had purchased in London at the sale of the effects of Captain James Cook, the explorer. The following year, they acquired 200 acres on the Don River and built a residence, which they named Castle Frank, for their son, Francis.
Elizabeth enjoyed her time at York, exploring the area on horseback, visiting neighbours, and hosting dignitaries. She revelled in being the wife of the Lieutenant Governor and the social status that it granted her. Writing home to England, she described her ability to “follow her own fancy” as a “satisfactory mode of living.”
When the Lieutenant Governor was recalled to England in 1796, she wrote “I was so much out of Spirits I was unable to dine… I could not eat, [I] cried all day.” They began their long journey home in July, arriving in the fall. Upon their return, Elizabeth, a devoted and skilled painter, presented King George III with 32 watercolours from her collection. The family also brought home personal treasures from Upper Canada, including textiles, swords, and even their canoes.
Reunited with her other four children, she quickly settled back into life at Wolford and gave birth to four more children between 1798 and 1804. She turned the estate in Devon into a centre of social life with splendid gatherings, invitations to which were highly sought.
Her diaries from Upper Canada demonstrate a strong curiosity for the wilderness and enthusiasm for life in the British colonies. She would have enjoyed more international adventures, but it was not to be: In 1805, Colonel Simcoe was made Commander in Chief in India, and Elizabeth made plans to follow him, but he took ill and died before they could leave.Elizabeth Simcoe lived to age 87, four decades past her husband’s death. Her legacy to Toronto is on our streets and in our archives and art galleries: Mrs. Simcoe named prominent Toronto places: Scarborough (geologically similar to the area of the same name in England), the Don River (a river in Yorkshire), and the Humber River (a river in northeast England). Her diaries and watercolours are among the earliest records of both the social life and the natural history of Upper Canada. Highly fond of and knowledgable about plant and animal species, they feature in many of her entries and sketches. Her paintings of Lake Ontario and its harbours and rivers transport contemporary Toronto to its wild roots; in more recent years these have been used to construct a romantic narrative of early Toronto as a pristine utopia.
Ann Marie F. Murnaghan, “Representing nature in Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe’s Diary: An examination of Toronto’s colonial past”, Prairie Perspectives: Geographical Essays (Vol: 15); Edith G. Firth, “Gwillim, Elizabeth Posthuma (Simcoe)”, Dictionary of Canadian Biography; Mary Beacock Fryer, Elizabeth Postuma Simcoe 1762-1850, A Biography, (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1989); Mary Quayle Innis, Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary, (Toronto: MacMillan Company of Canada, 1965)
Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Did you like this article? Do you love Torontoist? Support articles like this by becoming one of the first Torontoist subscribers. Get great perks and fund local journalism that makes a difference—join Raccoon Nation now.